Real-Life Sanctification: How Much Television Should a Christian Watch?

I actually figured this one out the other day. Turns out the correct amount rounds out to about eight hours a week.

Just thought that you might want to know.

And with that, I bring this bad joke to a close, even as I ask this question in a serious manner: how much tv should we watch as believers? It strikes me that this question ties in with our sanctification more than some of us might think. Sometimes we talk a good deal about sanctification–our progressive, life-long, Spirit-given growth in godliness as redeemed believers–but fail to put any feet on it. We forget to go the next step and ask, what does it actually look like to be sanctified in our contemporary age? In a culture that gravitates to certain sins and patterns of behavior, what does it look like to live a transformed life per Romans 12? We ought not to think that we can talk a great deal about sanctification without clear practical application. That’s like talking a great deal about the importance of political engagement but never actually doing anything to enact that love. We would say that such a person is full of hot air–always possessing an opinion, yet never coupling that opinion with action. Many of us, however, can fall prey to just such a lifestyle.

In asking questions like this, then, we’re not trying to get pinned down on tiny little matters that have no tie to our faith. No, we’re trying to carry out Romans twelve in a very meaningful way and ask ourselves, what does it look like to be an American Christian? I appreciate this about my former boss, Dr. Al Mohler. He teaches about sanctification as a systematic theologian, but he then seeks to discern the particular challenges of contemporary culture to the sanctification of the individual Christian. I want to do the same, and I want to encourage others to do the same. Toward that end, many Americans watch a ton of television. Here’s a quotation on the absolutely stunning amount of tv your average American watches (source):

“Figures from Nielsen Media Research show the average US household consuming eight hours and 14 minutes of TV per day; with the average individual American watching four hours and 35 minutes a day.”

Wow.

This is an obviously unhealthy amount of television viewing. I’m not even going to attempt to ground that claim. I don’t need to. And yet we have to wonder how many Christians fit this “average” profile. I’m guessing, sadly, that many do. Beyond this, I’m guessing that many healthy, reformed, book-reading, intentionally holy Christians do as well. Why is it harmful to watch so much tv? Well, it’s wasteful. One ends up lolling in front of a constantly blinking set with very little to show for it in the end. Of course, we all need some relaxation time, some period of the day when we rest our minds and allow ourselves to kick back. But we should not make the apparently national mistake of thinking that “relax” equals “television”. It does not. Furthermore, there are so very many more healthy and helpful things we can do than to watch massive amounts of television. We can pray with our spouses or friends; we can read a good book together (yes, normal people actually do this!); we can go on a walk; we can go visit a person in need; we can call an unmarried friend who is in need of encouragement; we can check up on family members by a quick telephone call; we can write a blog post of endless length and little actual readership (just checking that you’re reading). In these and so many other ways, we can avoid letting television do its voodoo work of mental hypnosis and physical paralysis.

Television is not nearly as neutral as many of us “engaging culture” types think it is. Bethany and I don’t watch much of it, but our limited viewings of The Office definitely influence us. We repeat funny lines to one another, wonder out loud about whether Jim and Pam will ultimately marry, and laugh about Michael’s antics. Though these acts are not inherently bad, necessarily, they show us that even in our very limited viewing, we are being impacted by our subject material. Many of my “engaging culture” friends have not caught on to the fact that though they, like me at times, think that they are impervious to all cultural influence on their faith, they in fact are not, as inarguably demonstrated by their use of a style of humor that one learns from shows like The Office, Saturday Night Live, and 30 Rock. Do you really think that your ironic comebacks and affected coolness come only from your own comedic preferences? No, just like me and everyone else, you’ve been influenced to joke in that way by culture. It’s not neutral, and neither is your approach to it.

In watching lots of tv, then, we’ll be shaped by it in profound ways. Unless you’re watching John MacArthur shows on loop on TBN, that’s not a good thing, broadly speaking. Am I arguing here for legalism, for some prune-like, sour-mouthed Christianity? I don’t think that I am. I’m merely trying to point out that we have a limited amount of time in the day, and what we take in during that limited time will shape us. It should not surprise us at all when we are less spiritually hungry and fruitful in seasons when we’re consuming (and being consumed by) popular media. It only makes sense that this happen. If we want spiritual health and vitality, we’re going to have to force ourselves to fight for holiness and to discipline ourselves for the purpose of attaining spiritual health. Christians who do so are most often the ones who, when cancer or financial difficulty or spousal sin or lay-offs or rejection letters or broken friendships hit, are most able to maintain a strong faith and even radiate joy in the midst of their trials. When you’ve been working through a good Puritan paperback, or listening to Mahaney sermons, or volunteering at your local crisis pregnancy center, you’re going to be healthier than the person who has taken in lots of television, film, and music. It only makes sense.

Let’s wrap this up with a personal word. My wife and I are working hard at this. At night, when we’re both tired, it comes fairly naturally to put the tube and put our feet up. It’s easy, it’s fun, and it makes sense. While we’ve both realized that there are definitely times in the week when it is fine (and even good!) to do so, we can also both see that a steady diet of tv or movies dulls us spiritually and hinders us from doing really important spiritual things that will mature and grow us both personally and as a couple. We’ve recently drawn up a weekly schedule (shades of legalism–flee!) that will give us a basic form for the week. On a number of nights, we’ll do lots of different things–have company, pray together for an extended time for the salvation of family (or the defeat of institutional abortion, the welfare of orphans abroad, the coming of God’s kingdom), go on a walk, read a book on parenting–and on other nights, we’ll watch something, often just a few shows of something we like, like The Office. In this way, we hope to avoid legalism and self-righteousness on the one hand and undisciplined media gluttony and spiritual torpor on the other.

We haven’t necessarily solved this question, and we don’t claim to have the perfect answer, and having a child is going to change everything, and we’ll probably fluctuate in our actual practice of this plan, but we are resolved to use the limited time we have in this life well, and to grow in holiness. Eight hours a week may work, or it may not, but whatever the perfect answer is to the question posed in the blog’s title, we are hopeful that we and many others can rebel against the culture and engage with God in real-life sanctification that defeats the whispers of the evil one (“just relax, you don’t need to be all spiritual”) and that in fact transforms us even as we pursue it.

  • Bradley

    Owen! Two things.

    1) Your posting on this issue is very appropriate. Your right to think that our sanctification depends more on this than we might think, but at the same time, it shouldn’t surprise us. Media is powerful, can make people lazy (in addition to feeding the soul bad food), can pull people away from their responsibilities, and ultimately causes us to miss out on those things in life which are worth more of our time. It’s a death trap for the true Christian Hedonist.

    I decided in college that so long as I was single I would never own cable, and only have a TV for watching DVD’s (so I can control what comes on the screen). So far I’ve stayed true to that. Great post.

    2. I know u told me to e-mail you, but i don’t have your e-mail and i tried to txt your cell phone, but i didn’t get a reponse (figured you might have changed your cell number). Hallaback.

  • Ben Bartlett

    Hey Owen,

    Thanks for another deeply thoughtful post. TV certainly presents an area of high danger to our spiritual lives, both in areas of sloth and wastefulness, and in areas of its input in our minds.

    One addtional note I might make: I have been without TV for about a year and a half now. Even so, I find that those same sins remain within me. Lots of times people think merely not having TV or watching less is the same thing as being sanctified, but really it’s just an opportunity to waste time elsewhere.

    The approach you and Bethany are taking is extremely helpful and humbling to me. Your commitment to DO something with the extra time is, I think, far more helpful than someone who cuts TV out entirely but doesn’t make good use of the extra time.

    Thanks again for a very helpful post.

  • Andrew Walker

    Owen,
    Thanks for the wonderful post!My wife and I struggle with TV consumption for fear that there is ‘nothing else to do.’ Thanks for providing a Godly example.

    Andrew Walker

  • Ally

    I think internet could be lumped into this same type of category. I no longer have cable, which is such a blessing, but I’ve definitely found that I sometimes let the internet take its place. Good post.

  • Peter Schott

    Ally, you’re starting to meddle with that last comment. :-)

    Seriously, we’ve already cut our cable – I just can’t justify the expense for what we actually get. Some friends of ours just got cable and now noticed that their kids want more stuff from the store.

    Personally, I’m a natural couch potato. Not having cable gets rid of that reason to veg. It also means we’re more selective about what we actually watch because we typically have to either track it down or rent/buy it. I think it’s great that my kid isn’t addicted to a television show. She likes several, but can definitely live without them. Of course, there are times that I think a little more PBS Kids wouldn’t necessarily hurt to help fill in some of the basics that we don’t always work on like we should.

    Bradley, if you can keep away from the cable even after being married – more power to you.

  • DaveN

    Very interesting and engaging. Good stuff.

  • Anonymous

    My husband and I came to similar convictions years ago and got rid of the cable. (We sometimes watch The Office on line :D)
    We don’t miss it, but our teenage son is somewhat of a prodigal and resents us for “imposing” our beliefs on him.
    Of course, we have explained the obvious to him and he is refusing to see reason in the true fashion of teenage rebellion.
    What would you do in that situation? Just curious.
    We are not budging, since we have 5younger children, but wonder if we are missing some form of reasonable compromise.

  • Anonymous

    Hey Owen, someone in my church passed this article along to me. I’m quoting some of it in our church bulletin this week as we are about to embark on a week long Tv Fast!

    I agree with Ally on the internet point, that’s our next step!

    Great posting, enjoyed reading!

    -Sean

  • Ched

    we can write a blog post of endless length and little actual readership

    Grins.

    they show us that even in our very limited viewing, we are being impacted by our subject material

    This is a good word.

    I’ve been guilty of Andy Bernard’s technique of “personality mirroring” far too often (both consciously and unconsciously).

    It is sobering to think how much of popular culture affects my modes and categories of thought.

  • Patti Blount

    My husband and I haven’t had T.V. for about 10 years now. We do have a monitor to watch DVD’s, which we are very selective about. It’s not particularly the watching it that is the central problem, although that can become one too. It is the content of most of the shows. As you’ve suggested, it is the effect it has on one’s growth in the Lord. Aren’t we wanting to not fuel our fleshly desires and lusts? Isn’t that what God wants for us? The word says: “Put no unclean thing before your eyes.” That is really plain to me. Could it be that a person’s flesh just really wants to be indulged, and so they justify their watching unclean things, and then label people who aren’t watching as “legalists”? Could it be that if they can get others who are abstaining to watch, that they will feel better about their own watching, which they know, deep inside by the spirit, is not profitable to them, in an attempt to assuage their guilty conscience? Taking those images, words, and actions into our minds is choosing to engage one’s soul (mind, will, and emotions) and involve itself in unclean things, which the Lord calls sin. So, why the light treatment of this? It also becomes a part of you on a level that can’t even be detected. All of this is really spiritually discerned, and if you’ve been engaged in watching these shows and movies for a long period of time (viewing magazines, etc. not to mention what one might listen to) then your spiritual senses have probably been dulled, and you probably can’t even hear or believe this. But, the Spirit of truth leads us into all truth, and He will validate and quicken this in your spirit if you will listen and acknowledge Him. One of the worse things about taking these images into someone, who calls himself the Lord’s, is that they are bringing DISHONOR to Him. Another thing is the message it sends to the world on what it means to follow Him. The message is: It’s not really any different, except you get to be forgiven and go to heaven, but you can really indulge your flesh like everyone else. Have we really received the grace of God if that is our belief? Lots to pray about in all of this; not a subject to be treated lightly. How about praying to our Lord, who we’ve surrendered our lives to saying: Lord, what do you say about watching these shows? What is your Will concerning this? And then , truly listen, wait, and respond likewise.
    We might want to pray also that He would not let our fleshly desires get in the way, as we listen so that the answers would not be filtered through them, thinking we’ve heard from God. If we tap into the Spirit within us, if we are born-again, we know the answers for He has shown us.
    We are to help one another as brothers and sisters in Christ, rid ourselves of the sin nature, and draw closer to God. We can’t do this if we try and make the hard truth palatable. In fact, the fleshly nature abhors the truth, but by the power of the Spirit of God within us, we can overcome and walk in that Spirit.


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